A meeting intended to discuss proposed looser limits to controlled burns during the off-season became a lightning rod of catharsis for Southern Oregonians who’d far exceeded their smoke limit for the summer.
A crowd of upwards of 70 locals turned out to the Smullin Health Education Center Wednesday evening to voice frustration on a variety of forest management policies that have led to two months of choking wildfire smoke in Southern Oregon, surprising officials with the Oregon departments of Forestry and Environmental Quality advocating for proposed changes to proscribed burn regulations in the off-season.
Turnout overflowed from a double classroom at the facility in the Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center complex, prompting officials proposing regulation changes to controlled burns outside fire season to hastily move the meeting to the auditorium.
Questions and comments during the hearing largely touched on locals’ exasperation with the growing frequency and intensity of wildfires and the smoke they bring that have hit across the west and made for two months of smoke Southern Oregon.
Commenter Kathleen Page, who had an N95 mask around her neck, pointed to the mask and said “we’re all really sick of having to wear this.”
Page advocated for science-based approaches and proof the measures, which would add more smoke in the off-season, were beneficial. Earlier that evening, Page had asked ODF Smoke Management Manager Nick Yonker and DEQ Air Planning Program Manager Michael Orman about acres that could be saved with the proposed changes; however, the officials could only speak generally that more controlled burns are beneficial.
Members of Southern Oregon Climate Action Now and KS Wild voiced support as individuals and as members of their respective organizations.
Alan Journet, a SOCAN co-facilitator, said he supports efforts to “use fire sensibly.”
Others expressed skepticism that increased controlled burns would do more than make more smoke in the spring or fall. Ronald Rothrock of Medford, who said he has a masters in natural resource management, commented that although Southern Oregon is a fire-adapted community, the burns occur when they wouldn’t naturally.
“We’re already dealing with smoke in the summer,” Rothrock said. “It’s not appropriate in the off-season.”
Joseph Rice of Josephine County, Chair of the Oregon Republican Party’s Second Congressional District and a founder of the Josephine county Oath Keepers, touched on frustration about burnout operations during wildfires, which have contributed to the unhealthy levels of smoke.
At the time of the hearing, air quality was 218 micrograms of PM 2.5 particulates per cubic meter, according to Rice, well above the 70 microgram per cubic meter threshold for controlled burns.
“How are they being exempted?” Rice asked.
Orman, a meteorologist who advises when controlled burns are favorable outside of fire season, clarified that his department is not involved with burnouts during fire season, which don’t have to abide by air quality rules.
“We don’t have rules on how to fight wildfire,” Orman said.
An average of 165,000 are burned every year in controlled burns, according to Orman. ODF and DEQ determine when weather is favorable for controlled burns. The state agency alerts local ODF district offices, which determine high priority areas.
Orman described the expansions as a “slow process,” with goals to expand controlled burns to possibly 300,000 acres in the next 10 to 15 years.
A woman in the audience who called herself a “clean air refugee,” said that even though she’s one of the sensitive groups with asthma, she supports any effort to control the smoke.
“I can’t live in Medford anymore,” she said.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.